The 49ers needed to clear cap space this offseason, and trading DeForest Buckner to the Colts helped. But will the Niners ultimately regret it?
Buckner was going to cost the Niners roughly $12 million on his fifth-year option, and the two parties reached an impasse with regards to a contract extension. So, in the team’s biggest blockbuster move of the offseason, San Francisco ultimately dealt Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
That pick eventually turned into the 49ers’ hopeful replacement for Buckner, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
A few things to chew on here. First, the Niners inked fellow defensive tackle Arik Armstead to a new lucrative contract worth $17 million annually, coming off a season in which he led the team with 10 sacks. It was a breakout year for Armstead, sure. But considering Armstead never had more than three sacks in a single season beforehand, one can fairly wonder if San Francisco re-inked the wrong player.
But that’s in the past now. Buckner joins a Colts defensive line that ranked 15th against the run but 21st against the pass last year, according to Football Outsiders. Indianapolis’ top sack specialist, EDGE Justin Houston, figures to benefit from Buckner’s presence, yes. But defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was forced to rely heavily on blitz packages last season to generate pressure. This, largely because of EDGE Kemoko Turay being mostly a non-factor because of injury last season.
Buckner figures to benefit these two players, yes. And it’ll be interesting to see if the 49ers’ top pick from the 2016 draft winds up getting close to the double-digit sack total he enjoyed back in 2018 when the Niners were short edge rushers, not unlike where the Colts are entering 2020.
If so, perhaps San Francisco regrets the trade. Especially if Kinlaw fails to deliver early and can’t be relied upon to anchor the very center of the 49ers defensive line. But as far as situations go, it’s hard to argue Kinlaw will enjoy a much more favorable situation than what Buckner is poised to experience, particularly in light of the Niners’ other edge rushers including Armstead, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa.
Yet that’s not the total reason why San Francisco could ultimately regret the trade in the long run.
49ers’ stubbornness with rewarding top players
The Niners are shrewd with contract negotiations. It’s one of the reasons why Executive Vice President of Football Operations Paraag Marathe has never let the team get in danger of exceeding the salary cap.
But the inability or unwillingness to reward Buckner with a new contract could have negative trickle-down effects on the rest of the roster. Buckner was a well-respected player, both in the locker room and with the media. Players also pay attention to how contracts and extensions pan out, particularly after other players regularly display value to their respective teams.
Yes, there’s the understanding both teams and the NFL are businesses first, and the 49ers are no longer in a position where they can divvy out lucrative contracts to each player who’s made a sizable impact.
For Buckner, though, he was regularly the team’s best defensive player from 2016 through 2018, perhaps 2019 if one wants to evaluate his ability to influence others, such as Armstead and Bosa, having massive success.
San Francisco is now having some contract standoffs with other players, namely running back Raheem Mostert and All-Pro tight end George Kittle. If a precedent of not rewarding top-tier players winds up becoming a concern, it might coerce either/both of those players to potentially seek the deals they want elsewhere. Mostert apparently reached that point already this offseason.
And Kittle is someone the Niners can ill-afford to lose.
Either way, trading Buckner isn’t necessarily going to generate a huge amount of regret with regards to the on-field efforts, particularly if Kinlaw ascends quickly.
But in terms of players being recognized for their value, one can wonder if San Francisco should start showing trends of rewarding their top players instead of letting them go.